Health: Even academic high achievers can feel like failures

Britain on the Couch
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The Independent Culture
For the next three weeks this column will examine the effects of an increasingly exam-obsessed education system on the emotional development of children.

THE GCSE and A-level results are in, the tears shed and the screams of triumph screamed. With the degree results also finalised, it means there is not a single 16-21 year old in Britain who does not now know where they are ranked in relation to their peers, everyone put in their proper place. What no one seems to be asking is how this affects the emotional well-being of these children. The majority will leave the education system feeling like failures, and perhaps surprisingly, the damage is most acute at the top end of the system.

Consider the case of Frank (not his real name). Tall, well built and every inch the perfect schoolboy at his public school, he was head of everything. Just as some of his contemporaries attracted punishment for smoking, he attracted responsibility. A scholarship to Oxbridge and a cricketing Blue in his first year followed.

On the first morning of his second-year university exams, he set off from the house he shared with friends. When he had not returned at 2 am they became worried. He appeared 48 hours later with little memory of the intervening time. Forced to drop back a year, 12 months later he set off again to attempt the fence of these exams which, to a man of his calibre, should have been like a row of matchboxes. But exactly the same happened as before. This time he took a year out before finally graduating with a Third Class degree.

During his year out he had travelled and on graduation he took off again, ending up in a southern European city. He is still there today, 10 years later, working as a waiter to support a regime of remarkable sexual promiscuity. Aged 35, he truly does seek a new sexual conquest every single day despite being recently married and just as he excelled at school, now he excels in promiscuous sex.

His obsession with high achievement consumed his self and it was mercilessly exploited by his school. He had learnt to define himself so utterly through comparing his performance to others that he had completely lost sight of any purpose it might serve for him. When he left the little society that was his school and had choices, he quickly discovered there was no "him" to make them. Only by escaping to a foreign land where he had no history could he begin the process of finding out what he wanted. He languishes in a repetitive, compulsive loop of pointless achievement, with sex merely having replaced academia and sport as the challenge.

Frank's sad story cannot be dismissed by suggesting he was suffering from a mental illness or that his hard-driving parents are an exception. Numerous studies show that he is not alone.

One study related the average ability level in different schools with self-esteem. Esteem was lower in schools with higher ability pupils: if you are surrounded by very able people, it tends to lower your self-valuation. Another study found that achievers in top American universities have lower career aspirations and self-regard than achievers from less exalted universities.

This makes sense when you consider the evolutionary purpose of depression. Originally, it was a way for subordinate members in a hierarchy to indicate to superiors that they posed no threat. By placing a low value on their worth, becoming withdrawn and inactive, they could signal to more powerful members that they accepted the status quo. The alternative was violent death.

The theory predicts that on the whole, subordinated members of society, like women and the poor, would suffer more depression than superior ones - as they do. But under some conditions, even the most successful members of society can also become depressed.

John Price, a key theorist, wrote: "Critics of [the] Rank theory [of depression] are fond of pointing out that not all people who are in subordinate positions, or who are low in social resources, suffer from depression, while people in a high social position (such as a Head of State) may do so. What is critical is what people perceive their social status and power to be and what they themselves believe to be the critical level below which it must not be allowed to fall".

Academic high-flyers perceive themselves so negatively because they compare with others of their standard, losing sight of how well they are doing compared to the vast majority of the population. Their success only leads to further subordination because no sooner have they become one of the biggest fish in a pond, they are moved to a bigger one where they are tiddlers in a shoal of equally high achievers.

An in-depth study comparing 19 very able middle-class girls with 19 working- class ones and following them from ages 4 to 21, powerfully bears this out. Despite being exceptional achievers, all the middle-class girls, without exception, were considerably more anxious and stressed than the working-class girls.

Valerie Walkerdine, the researcher who did the study, explained why. "The majority of the middle-class girls went to schools where high performance was the norm and therefore high performance came to be regarded as average. A young woman who did well would not see herself as outstanding because achievement was what was expected of her. By contrast, a working-class girl who did well would be held up as a good example by friends and family, whereas the talents of middle-class achievers were largely unsung.

This is the death that so many high achievers suffer today: death by social comparison. If we make our self-esteem contingent on external standards, we run a huge risk of feeling like failures because, even if we succeed in these terms, there will always be someone better than us.

The paperback edition of Oliver James' book, `Britain on the Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite Being Richer', is published on 6 September by Arrow (pounds 7.99)